Summer days, an…

Summer days, and the flat water meadows and the blue hills in the distance, and the willows up the backwater and the pools underneath like a kind of deep green glass. Summer evenings, the fish breaking the water, the nightjars hawking round your head, the smell of nightstocks and latakia. Don’t mistake what I’m talking about. It’s not that I’m trying to put across any of that poetry of childhood stuff. I know that’s all baloney. Old Porteous (a friend of mine, a retired schoolmaster, I’ll tell you about him later) is great on the poetry of childhood. Sometimes he reads me stuff about it out of books. Wordsworth. Lucy Gray. There was a time when meadow, grove, and all that. Needless to say he’s got no kids of his own. The truth is that kids aren’t in any way poetic, they’re merely savage little animals, except that no animal is a quarter as selfish.

A boy isn’t interested in meadows, groves, and so forth. He never looks at a landscape, doesn’tgive a damn for flowers, and unless they affect him in some way, such as being good to eat, he doesn’t know one plant from another. Killing things – that’s about as near to poetry as a boy gets. And yet all the while there’s that peculiar intensity, the power of longing for things as you can’t long when you’re grown up, and the feeling that time stretches out and out in front of you and that whatever you’re doing you could go on for ever.

The quote is taken from George Orwell’s Coming Up For Air. There’s a few authors who have been strangled by their best. I’d put Sherwood Anderson and Winesburg, Ohio in the category. Aldous Huxley and A Brave New World as well. Perhaps Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness. Others, however, have been strangled so only one work remains. In that category I put George Orwell, who is now synonymous with 1984 even though it is a simple parable that captures as much about him as Green Eggs and Ham captures the spirit of Dr. Seuss. That is to say, there is something captured but only a thing–a some. Not all or even most. Though there are other contenders for that crown, such as C. S. Lewis. His devotional, theological, science fictional and political writings have been reduced to a simple duality: Narnia and, for a select for, the Screwtape Letters. Or William Golding and Lord of the Flies. Truly, I blame high school curriculum. A little education is a dangerous thing. It makes me worry that we’ll one day remember, say, Truman Capote only for In Cold Blood or Toni Morrison for Beloved.

Anyhow, if your booklist is looking a little short I’d recommend going back to some of your high school’s standards. Or some of those authors who have written a ‘classic.’ 

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6 thoughts on “Summer days, an…

  1. That paragraph on the limiting of the syllabus is so very, very true. And for so many authors. I’ve no problem to going back to what we learned in school but, we also need to expand it a lot, there’s a lot of very good stuff out there.

  2. Or Anthony Burgess with A Clockwork Orange or J.D. Salinger with The Catcher in the Rye. But are they strangled by their best or strangled until only one work remains? What’s the distinction?

    • Hello! Thanks for dropping by.

      It’s both and there is the difference. There’s no test, which makes the distinction great for endless (but not needless) conversation. Some authors are strangled by their own work. The work was too great, or captured (like in the case of J. D. Salinger, as I never quite enjoyed Catcher in the Rye) too much of the popular imagination. Everything that came after, or before, was simply ‘not up to snuff.’

      Other writers, and in this category I would put Anthony Burgess, along with William Golding (The Spire is infinitely better than Lord of the Flies), their greatest writing is not limited to a single novel–no matter how great. Yet the author has been strangled and reduced to one work. Oftentimes he or she becomes a truism. ‘Aldous Huxley wrote A Brave New World.’ No, Huxley has become A Brave New World.

      I guess in some sense it comes down to whether I view it as justifiable or not… Which is shallow, but I can be incredibly shallow when I need to justify my reading whims.

      I don’t see any readily identifiable characteristics for why some authors end up escaping these two categories. To take an obvious example, Nabakov and Lolita seem to hit all the buttons: Lolita has captured the public’s imagination, it has a large following compared to the rest of his works yet even now the bowtie of the well-intentioned Pnin graces my profile picture. Pale Fire is still discussed, routinely, and his autobiography Speak, Memory is not about to sink into obscurity.

      To flesh this out a little farther (though feel free to jump in here) I find the main problem to be journalism and education. Ironic seeing as Orwell, who suffers the most from the malady of being strangled by journalism (Orwellian this, Orwellian that) was originally a journalist himself. But there you have it.

      • I think Salinger’s later work was better than Catcher, but it was too personal and esoteric. It didn’t capture the popular imagination, as you said.

        I couldn’t get into Huxley’s other stuff, like Island or Doors of Perception. But then I couldn’t get into Brave New World either. My own shallowness. My list of things I’m curious about and would like to read is very long, but if I start it and I don’t like, I’m not going to spend time on it. As I said, the list is very long.

  3. Most of the books I had to read for school I find to be just as terrible as when I read them the first time. I have no problem calling A Clockwork Orange, for example, crap. I hated it when I read it for school, and hated it when I reread it. But then again, when it comes to fiction, I’m a cranky old man with a salt shotgun yelling at kids to get off my lawn.

    • Oh boy. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure. And I can see why you might not like it, or might disagree with it, or not want it to be part of a school curriculum. But it’s worth reading just for the brilliance of the language alone.

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